Once upon a time in tech, pre-laptop, pre-cell phone, when there were only numbers and words on screens—no images, graphics, or even colors—there was me, starting my career in the software industry. This embedded orientation taught me that work itself is not technology, nor tools. It’s space: the space we work in, the space in our heads, the space in our calendars, and the spaces we co-exist in, even if virtually.
On my first day at Microsoft in 1989 I was assigned a Compaq “Luggable” Lunchbox PC with a whopping 1 MB RAM and a 17-pound Macintosh SE. This was considered leading-edge, Apple’s first portable model because it had a handle. A handle! Hired initially as a part-timer, I was to work from home in my wood paneled den, carrying one of these computers when I worked onsite with customers. Imagine.
I use this memory to find compassion for leaders who believe that remote or hybrid work is the seventh ring of hell. In my early remote days, I remember circling ring six. My mental RAM filled quickly and I was often out of space. Between new job jitters, being sent home without instruction on connecting with peers, and clunky computing, the mental battery power I allocated to work requiring my full energy was already draining by the time my systems booted up.
Today, you may be established in your job, have the internet or AI skills to find an answer to any question, and your tools don’t require brute strength. Yet, if you’re consumed by the tech itself, you may be ignoring the space around you, the space within you, and the space between us.
Look at The Space Around You
A few months ago, I led a company-wide conversation on our workspaces because everyone at Proof+Geist works from home. I asked what artifacts people surrounded themselves with at their desk. Afterall, we never see what our colleagues are looking at, and what they see beyond their monitor.
Liv began by saying because she’s easily bored she surrounds herself with small quirky things and her bird. She said, “I tend to fill my workspace with a lot of crap that makes me really happy, that makes me feel comfortable, so that I actually want to be in my workspace rather than go somewhere else. I guess maybe it’s kind of the opposite of other people. If they don’t want something to distract them, they keep it simple.” Her curated “crap” brings her contentment in her space.
Eric said his workspace is a family-free zone. With two young children, he said, “We’ve established strict rules in my house, where if I’m in my office and it’s during the workday you need to pretend I’m not home because you’re not allowed to come in. Even my wife will text me throughout the day although we’re in the same house. It’s not to be overly strict. We found that it helped because then, when I’m home, I’m home. When I leave for work in the morning I say goodbye, and I give everyone a hug. And I say, ‘I’m going to work now.’ It’s a little bit of play and feels weird, but it matters and it helps.”
Mike said, “My house makes a lot of noise. Dogs, cats—everybody scratching at my door. It’s probably not ideal, and would be too loud for other people, but it works for me. I have a dedicated space with piles that mean stuff. I have computers and monitors that help me—and I have fairly comfortable earphones with noise reduction I can turn on as needed.”
Barbara got down to the nitty gritty, “My big tip is the chair. You gotta get yourself a good chair.”
I agree, Barbara, we need to be comfortable in the seat we have at our own table, wherever it is.
While they share access to enterprise tools, their surroundings are unique and wildly different. They prioritize their personal comfort and emphasize how their space–rather than their tech–works for them.
If each person had custom stickers with their motto,
Liv’s sticker may read: Keep it quirky
Eric’s might say: More popcorn, please!
Mike’s would remind us to: Be kind to your future self
Barbara’s may proclaim: Get Comfy. Get Coffee. Get Started.
Create More Space in Your Head
A frequent gripe in work, if it’s face-to-face or over video, can be lack of mental clarity, motivation, and seeing things through. This happens no matter where we’re sitting (or standing), device agnostic or tech-free. It is more about the space in our minds.
Barbara rewards herself. “I will get a chocolate, but only if I write this thing first.”
Martha said, “I’m motivated backwards that way. I’ve tried that method, and I’m just like ‘screw it,’ and I eat the chocolate anyway. So, what I do is the opposite. I will get myself a chocolate because I’m awesome and deserve a chocolate, and then guilt kicks in. It’s like ‘Damn it! I’ve run out of treats so now I have to do the thing!”
When Angelo starts to feel antsy, he physically breaks from his current deep dive. “I do something for 5 minutes, and then come back, whether it be load the dishwasher, go outside, pick up or feed a cat. Unless I satiate those feelings I get distracted by them, and no matter what I do, I will not be on target.”
Krissy is “deadline motivated. So when I say I’m going to do something by a particular date, I find that very helpful, even if it’s a fake obligation. Saying out loud that I have a deadline helps motivate the motion. I value being reliable and I want to be perceived as dependable, so if I say I’m going to do something, I will do it.”
Andy added that he prizes regular housekeeping. “My desk is in pretty good shape even when the rest of my office studio is a disaster. I’m trying to get regularly at least tidy up, if not actually organize. It makes a massive difference.I can think again.” He also has a “turntable in the corner, and similar to the pomodoro technique, I gotta take a minute to flip or change the record. That enforces that I stretch and stop staring at the screen. It’s kind of a nice side effect.”
Alo has “a yoga wheel, a small round tube I can lay down on with it under my neck or lower back. I keep it in this room, and especially after sitting down so much I can just roll out. That’s very helpful.”
Peter gives himself mental space back by noting what he’s doing before switching to something else as well as maintaining a checklist of project startup items. “It allows me to get to the thing faster. ‘Oh, this is where I left off. This is what I’m doing next. And here’s the boom, boom, boom that I need to do to actually get into the project. Open FileMaker, click the VPN, etc..’” These techniques help minimize the massive cost of switching between activities.
Dirk said, “Whenever I’m stuck, but I don’t have time to go for a walk–my favorite way to get unstuck–I grab a puzzle. It could be anything but puzzles around the desk are always fun, and get my brain out of whatever loop it’s stuck in.”
Nice one, Dirk. Puzzling things, as a creative pursuit, can keep us from spiraling.
Beside my own computer rig and ring light is a Rubik’s Cube, glow in the dark Silly Putty, a notepad, and reading glasses.
What didn’t we list? A bunch of technology and standard office protocol tools. We have them, yet they’re not what speaks to how we make space for ourselves and produce, collaboratively.
Space Is A Fun Frontier
I used to work for a CEO who would spend the night rearranging office furniture. He moved art. Reoriented desks. Removed couches. It seemed fun for him. Previously when he was looking to create and play, he’d reorganize the company. Yes, you read that right. The disruption was incalculable. Then someone suggested he try redecorating instead. We’d come in to find our desks in the same space—usually—even if the CEO’s office was now closer by. Often I couldn’t point out the change even if I could feel them. Maybe I should have been more curious about it all. About us all. It was nerve wracking, while also always provided new perspectives.
Our awareness can hold space for our true selves in a global networked ecosystem of home and office buildings. The freedom and fun we seek in physical or virtual spaces is not in the tech. It’s in the mental space we’re able to create with it.
When I traveled weekly, I covered my rollaboard luggage in decals. Being grounded along with everyone else during the pandemic, and now working mostly from home, a laptop and water bottle accompany me on local adventures. They get adorned with stickers, each with its own story of the spaces I’ve been to, designed, created, and exist in.
Some more mottos
Alo’s sticker would say: Lifting Each Other, Rising Together
Dirk’s might shout: The answer is Yes!
Peter’s would say: Write stories. Make breakfast.
Some people like to rock their spots with leopard print. My spots peel off. Two are from a long ago #HRTechConf that say Mentor and Advocate. Beside them is a Lepricorn (half Leprechaun, half unicorn), and a Proof+Geist logo. Another one says, Pause and one simply reminds me to Go Slow.
They crack me up and root me in silliness–in my head or in conversations with interesting people. They say something about who I represent, both as a techie from way back and as an advisor to the Proof+Geist team. The stickers convey without spoken words, the same way our spaces speak about us, to us, and for us. Full volume. In color.
Marcia Conner, a former software executive, serves as an advisor to the Proof+Geist leadership team, a mentor for TED fellows, and is writing a book about life at a distance.